Dingell seeks answers on accountability in EMU rape allegations

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell sent a letter Wednesday to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona raising questions about a lawsuit that accuses Eastern Michigan University of covering up a series of alleged rapes involving more than 10 reported victims.

Dingell, D-Dearborn, said in the letter she has "deep concern" about whether EMU is enforcing Title IX policies and raised a number of questions including whether the U.S. Department of Education is investigating claims made in the lawsuit.

She also said during an interview that she is not "going to let go of this issue."

The Delta Tau Delta fraternity house across the street from Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, March 24, 2021.

“I'm deeply disturbed by the number of allegations, and I've asked a lot of questions,” Dingell said. “I think some women were afraid to go forward. And I have a lot of questions about how, when people are afraid, we still investigate and ensure that both men and women are attending school in an atmosphere where they feel safe.”

The lawsuit, filed last week, alleges the college covered up a series of sexual assaults involving more than 10 reported victims on or near campus at fraternity houses, including Alpha Sigma Phi and Delta Tau Delta, from 2015 to 2020. The suit outlined numerous allegations including that Melody Werner, who previously served as EMU’s Title IX director, allegedly failed to report accusations to law enforcement in 2018, allowing one former student "to continue his serial sexual assaults." 

It also alleges university officials ignored or were deliberately indifferent to more than 30 alleged rapes. The lawsuit, brought by 11 women using the alias Jane Doe, seeks damages for violations of civil rights, sexual assault, retaliation, gross negligence and other violations.

EMU President James Smith said in a statement Wednesday that he appreciates and shares Dingell's concern and welcomes any federal review of EMU's Title IX actions.

"The University is committed to learning every detail as to whether our processes related to these cases were followed and, if not, why not and what steps should be taken so that our students are protected and feel supported in reporting sexual assault," Smith said. "We have stated from the beginning of this matter that we are committed to full transparency in this process." 

EMU President James Smith sent a campus message last week that lauded the alleged victims for coming forward but said the university was unaware of the alleged incidents until last fall, prompting the university to hire Cozen O’Connor, an outside investigative firm, to review the university's Title IX practices. A report is expected this spring and will be made public, Smith said.

Dingell, whose district includes the EMU campus in Ypsilanti, asked Cardona if he is aware of the allegations and what oversight procedures his department has to hold university officials accountable for potential Title IX violations.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell

She also asked what kind of information schools must disclose under Title IX and the Jeanne Clery Act, which requires transparency about campus crimes, as well as how federal officials will review the information "to ensure schools are fully compliant in reporting criminal behavior?"

“All higher education institutions have a legal and moral responsibility to protect students who come forward with serious allegations of sexual assault and harassment," Dingell wrote. "These accusations paint a deeply concerning picture that Eastern Michigan University failed to meet it's legal obligations to these students.

“As these investigations continue, it is critical that the Department of Education uphold its own responsibilities under Title IX to make sure our students are safe and protected from all sexual violence,” she wrote. 

Werner left EMU to serve as director of Michigan State University's Office of Institutional Equity in November 2019. She transitioned in September 2020 to do special projects within the university's Office of Civil Rights and Title IX, said MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant. Werner gave notice in February that she is retiring in June, Guerrant added.